Pencil drawing of various abstract figures. The figures on the left are reminiscent of eyes or onions, further to the right, among other things, some bird-like, some eye-like shapes.

“Formation is Life.” Organicism and Aesthetic Modernism

Aesthetic modernism supposedly replaces the holistic philosophy of art with an aesthetics of fragmentation. This thesis, which sets the very concept of the artwork into question, has been argued by some of the most astute theorists and critics on either side of the Atlantic, including Theodor W. Adorno, Peter Bürger, and Rosalind Krauss, and has today attained general acceptance. Reevaluating it today is not only suggested by the contemporary tendency to meditate on the connectedness of things; the fragmentation thesis is also put into question by the aesthetic reflections of the composers, painters, sculptors, writers, and filmmakers whose work it would describe, including Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, Ferruccio Busoni, Alexander Scriabin, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, László Moholy-Nagy, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Alfred Döblin, Robert Musil, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Sergei Eisenstein—all of whom explicitly attributed an organic structure to the work of art, emphasizing the connection of its parts in relation to a whole.

Our project was to develop a new interpretation of aesthetic modernism by relating the theoretical reflections of the movement’s practitioners to contemporaneous developments in the life sciences, including the rise of experimental psychophysiology, the belated reception of Goethe’s morphology, Darwinism, and other reductionist approaches to biological phenomena. We observed that the concept of life in the early 20th century differed significantly from the holistic organicism of romantic and classical aesthetics, and investigated to what extent this new scientific discourse determined and regulated the theory of aesthetic modernism. And vice versa: how changes in the artistic sphere led to a new conceptualization of biological form and formation. We suggested that the choice between fragmentation and holism presupposes a false dichotomy predicated on the very rationalist and idealist philosophical assumptions that were problematized in the aesthetic theory of the early 20th century. Our aim was to recover the middle term excluded by this disjunction: a relation of parts to a whole which has more coherence than a mere aggregate, yet behaves more dynamically than a closed system. In Klee’s words: “Formation is good. Form is bad; Form is end is death. Formation is movement is act. Formation is life.”


Fig. above: Paul Klee, Zusammenhang und Früchte, 1927.

Head researcher(s): Ross Gillum Shields


Ross Shields


30 Sep 2021 · 8.00 am

Ross Shields: Helmholtz and Modernism

Indianapolis, IN / online

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21 Apr 2021 · 7.30 pm

Ross Shields: The Theory of Everything: Kant and Goethe on the Fictive Foundation of Empirical Science

Bard College Berlin

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